Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Cover letters: a suggested structure

Dr Steve Joy

Recently, I’ve been playing around with a good structure for cover letters. This is because I seem to have been reading too many letters of meandering, pandering prose that lacks any sense of rigour or clarity of purpose. Yes, the job description for a lectureship contains a lot of elements, and I agree that there is a lot to say. But that’s no excuse just to drone on for page after page, retelling every single research activity to which you've ever been even remotely connected. Your hard-pressed readers will not thank you for what I have elsewhere called encyclopaedic fervour. They will appreciate brevity.

So, below is a skeleton structure for a two-page cover letter, suitable for lectureships & similar positions. I don’t pretend that it’s a one-size-fits-all template, but when you adapt it, I urge you to keep in mind the relative proportions here. Note, for example, the balance between recounting past achievements & pointing forward to what you intend to do. Similarly, let’s not have 1500 words about your multifarious research interests followed by one hasty paragraph at the end in which you limply deal with the rest of the job description.

Another tip: you have to do more than simply demonstrate your eligibility for the post. Many people seem to stop at this point, meekly listing the ways that they fulfil the minimum requirements in terms of qualifications & experience. Yet nobody should be applying who doesn't meet these requirements, because they're not going to get shortlisted. Instead, think about what is particular to you.

Finally, it's not true that the only place where you need to ‘tailor’ your letter is right at the very end (in section 7 of my structure). This may seem like a smart time-saving move, but I think that, in fact, it's a very risky strategy. If your prospective employer has to wait until the bottom of page two before you make any effort to link what you're saying about yourself to their needs, then they will be justified in feeling pretty bored & uninterested in you as a candidate, and they might well stop reading before they get to your finely wrought 'tailoring' paragraph. My advice is that your letter should consistently refer back to the specific role & what makes you uniquely suited to it, like a thread that runs through the document.

Suggested structure - one paragraph per item:

1. Opening. Be sure to cover: (i) Which position are you applying for? (ii) What is your current job & affiliation? (iii) What’s your research field, and what’s your main contribution to it? (iv) In a sentence, what makes you most suitable for this post? 

[N.B. Please, don't just say that your 'excellent research' & 'commitment to teaching' make you 'well placed' to apply for the role 'at this stage of [your] career'. I promise you, everyone says this. It's tedious in the extreme & not especially helpful. How does this distinguish you from anyone else?]

2. Your PhD. What did you do, and what was the dissertation’s original contribution to the field? What publications came out of it?

3. Postdoctoral research. What do you do? Why is this topic important? Why is now the right time to do this research? Why are you the best researcher to carry it out? Include publication plans arising from this research.

4. Future research programme. What do you propose to do, including plans for publications, specific funding plans, collaborations? Crucially, why should this particular department be interested in your future research programme?

5. Teaching. What is your approach to teaching? What makes you a good teacher? Broadly, which of the department's courses could you teach? 

[N.B. Avoid simply listing course titles here. Group the teaching together, e.g. by theme or year group. And be careful not to suggest booting a long-standing member of staff off their cherished final-year research-led module. Think about what you're proposing & where the department's needs are likely to be.]

6. Curriculum development. How would you enhance their existing curriculum, at undergrad and/or postgrad level? What new course could you propose, and what's in it for the students?

7. Vision for the role. Apart from your research & teaching, what would you bring to the post? To the department? To the University? What about public engagement, service, admin, pastoral duties, etc? In other words, why should they offer this job to you (rather than to one of the other highly qualified candidates who will be applying)?


  1. Thanks! Really useful!

  2. Would you recommend enumerating PhD funding in the opening paragraph of a cover letter, particularly if its very prestigious?
    Several American "how to write a cover letter" website state this as a necessity, yet I'm aware that cover letters for UK and USA markets have many differences?

  3. That's an interesting question. I would say that, in the applications I've seen, whether for the UK or US job market, it's extremely rare to spell out in the cover letter the precise value of any PhD funding. Prestigious schemes tend to have name recognition & their value understood by selectors. By contrast, it's very common, in my experience, for this information to be included in the CV.

    Having said all of that, I don't see this as a straight-up right-or-wrong decision: if you included the value of your PhD funding in your cover letter - say, in parentheses - I don't imagine that it would substantially affect the selection panel's decision whether or not to shortlist you.

  4. Sorry, I worded my question wrongly (itself a good lesson in this job hunting game).

    I used the verb enumerate to mean 'list' rather than lay out the monetary value of it. Or, in other words, should applicants to the UK market mention their PhD funding in their cover letter?

    So, for example, do I mention the prestigious scholarship I was awarded for my PhD, along with a 3-year travel grant my university awarded me, in my opening paragraph?
    Or, thinking holistically, do I leave it to my CV to do that bit of work for me?

  5. If the PhD funding is prestigious, then there would be an argument for saying that, yes, it probably is worth mentioning it in the cover letter as well as in the CV. I wonder, though, whether the opening paragraph is the right place, or whether it perhaps makes more sense to mention it in (what I assume will be) your paragraph about the doctoral research.

  6. I was just wondering what changes to this structure would you implement if you weren't a postdoc going for a lecture position etc but an undergraduate student applying for a PhD in Cambridge and so can't use numbers 2 to 6? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

  7. Thank you for share this informative post.

  8. In the context of a Cambridge application, would you advise to mention if one has reached the last short-list (or interview stage) of a very selective, multi-disciplinary JRF competition at one or several colleges (ie ranked 2nd or 3rd over 500 or 600+ applicants, as it is often the case for these postdocs) despite not having won the fellowship? This might seem an odd question, but since short-listing in these competitions involve the submission of significant pieces of research, am I mistaken to think that such statement could serve as a proof that the applicant ranks among the best in his discipline?

  9. it feels reassuring - but is it wise- to quote examiners' reports or peer review feedback from publishers?

  10. Thanks, very helpful and useful

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  12. I must say that post is very informative.